Community, Inclusivity, and Connection: Reflecting on the 2023 Women of the Water Conference

This blog is part of a series called AquaCurious, which discusses important and popular topics related to finfish aquaculture in the U.S. This blog was written by Florida Sea Grant Aquaculture Fellow, Hayley Lemoine, in collaboration with Knauss Fellow and Virgina Tech Master’s student, Kaitlyn Theberge. 

The Women of the Water Steering Committee at the 2023 conference. Image courtesy of Hayley Lemoine.

On a sunny and humid September morning, the buzzing of excited chatter filled a spacious meeting room overlooking Sarasota Bay. Nearly 100 individuals from a dozen different states and Washington D.C., gathered together for the second Women of the Water conference in Sarasota, Florida. This three-day event brought together professionals from diverse fields including scientists, regulators, community organizers, aquatic farmers, students, and filmmakers to explore a common goal: increasing diversity and inclusion in aquaculture. 

Aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms, is the most rapidly growing sector of the agrifood industry, both in the U.S. and globally, with an average growth of 6.7% over the last three decades

Founded by Blair Morrison during her Gulf Research Program science policy fellowship, Women of the Water aims to create a supportive community, promote learning, and provide professional development opportunities for marginalized groups in aquaculture. As the first conference of its kind in the U.S., it strives to build a larger community of practice for women, non-binary individuals, gender-expansive people, and other underrepresented groups in aquaculture nationwide. The inaugural conference in June 2022 at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Florida, marked the realization of Morrison’s vision with the help of her fellowship mentor, Dr. Marcy Cockrell, the current Science Coordinator at NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture. Morrison and Dr. Cockrell continue to co-direct the conference.

This year’s conference hosted 100 participants and offered an engaging, participatory format with two keynote presentations, research talks and posters, small-group workshops, a tour of the Mote Aquaculture Park, conference-wide discussion-based exercises and opportunities for formal and informal networking.

An addition to this year’s conference was a mentorship program in which attendees of all different stages of their careers were assigned a mentor or mentee. The program included a pre-conference webinar, a meet-and-greet breakfast, and a custom workbook with tips and guided prompts for both mentors and mentees. The conference offered student travel awards and increased honoraria for invited speakers, made possible by anonymous donors and sponsorships from Florida Sea Grant, Virginia Sea Grant via the Aquaculture Information Exchange, and Mote Marine Lab.

Reflecting on this experience as early career professionals, and having served on the conference’s steering committee and mentorship sub-committee, we wanted to share some of our key takeaways. As we look at what lies ahead for both the aquaculture industry and our own careers, we believe there are important lessons in community, leadership, inclusivity, and connection from this conference to take with us and share with others. 

Being a Leader Starts with Building a Community

Women of the Water showcased how leaders in aquaculture navigate their careers and the role their professional community plays in shaping their work. The conference began with a powerful and inspiring presentation from Dr. Megan Davis, who shared her experience as a pioneer in the field of conch restoration aquaculture. She spoke about the challenges she faced as one of the only women working on a remote island in the Caribbean, while emphasizing the creative solutions she used to advance the science and practice of conch aquaculture. She underscored the importance of collaboration with local residents and how the foundation of her success stemmed from the international network she established. 

The following day, Imani Black gave an invigorating talk in which she took the audience through the history of Black fishers and watermen in the Chesapeake Bay. She discussed how the painful and shocking realization that shellfish aquaculture in the U.S. employs very few black women motivated her to change the field by starting Minorities in Aquaculture, a collaboration of organizations and professionals that opens doors and ensures that women of color have the support and resources needed to succeed in aquaculture. 

These talks made clear that being a leader does not mean working alone in a silo. To make lasting, positive change, it is critical to build a community that shares your mission, strengthens your efforts, and ensures the vision is carried on by those who follow in your footsteps. 

Inclusivity is the Foundation for Collaboration

How does the process of incorporating diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility (DEIA) practices enhance daily life and professional activities? Before this conference, neither of us experienced an event specifically centered on women in aquaculture. Aquaculture and fisheries are known for being homogeneously representative fields and though influential women have always been a part of aquaculture, it is an all too common experience to be the only woman in the room, making it easy to feel alone and even extraneous. 

While the conference is geared toward women and gender-diverse people, it was remarkable to learn how much diversity exists within those labels and to see the willingness of attendees to share vulnerable aspects of who they are and how it has impacted their careers. 

To make lasting, positive change, it is critical to build a community that shares your mission, strengthens your efforts, and ensures the vision is carried on by those who follow in your footsteps. 

The event facilitated a space not only for individuals to share their research and their professional experiences, but also how their intersecting identities—including neurodiversity, disability, age, race, parenthood, LGBTQ+ identity, and gender identity—shaped their challenges and successes in aquaculture, like issues with a lack of gear that fits many different body types.

The attention to inclusive practices made it easier for attendees to participate and engage in the conference discussions and activities. For example, people with disabilities had access to all conference spaces, name tags with pronouns were provided, and a private lactation room was available for those currently breastfeeding. Such intentional consideration and planning around how to incorporate more inclusive practices can be very impactful, making the Women of the Water conference a potential case study in how to approach inclusivity at other professional events.

Stronger Together than Alone

Alongside Morrison and Dr. Cockrell, we worked with Dr. Nicole Rhody, Program Manager and Senior Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory, and Maeesha Saeed, Program Officer at The National Academies Gulf Research Program, to establish a mentorship program as part of the conference experience, after receiving feedback for more mentorship opportunities in 2022. As a result, we brought together 15 mentor-mentee pairs based on their professional interests and career stage. Prior to the conference, we hosted a webinar so participants could meet each other and learn about successful mentorship, and we held a breakfast for all mentors and mentees during the conference. 

We enjoyed witnessing the cheerful formation of a network of professionals from all different career stages connect over their shared interest in aquaculture, exchange career advice and experience, and lift each other up. This vision was further validated during a round table discussion about the challenges women and gender-expansive folks face in aquaculture, and what can be done to address them.

We discussed the concept of a “toolbox” (i.e. the resources people can refer to when they are navigating new or uncomfortable situations, such as tips for negotiating pay or suggestions for responding to inappropriate comments). As ideas for “tools” floated around the room, one attendee noted, “In fact, we are the toolbox.” This comment caught everyone’s attention and upon further discussion, attendees agreed that while having many different “tools” is important, in the long term, one of the most valuable resources a person can have is a supportive network to turn to for guidance when needed. Creating a network of diverse professionals with a shared passion for aquaculture, and curating spaces like Women of the Water in which we can come together to share and learn, can help each of us feel less isolated and more supported. 

Reflecting to Look Ahead

Women of the Water was an opportunity for us to learn about the incredible work taking place in aquaculture, build our professional network, and acquire useful skills and resources. The most profound lessons we learned center on the idea of connection. Leadership, inclusivity, and community are ways to promote connection among people, industries, sectors, and more. Research has shown time and again that diverse working groups increase productivity and enhance creative problem-solving. Women of the Water celebrates this diversity through connection. We feel grateful for our experience at Women of the Water and look forward to pursuing more opportunities for diverse groups to build community, expand inclusivity, and strengthen the diverse network of people in aquaculture!

Are you interested in getting involved with the next conference?  Fill out this form to let us know you’re interested!

About the Bloggers

Hayley Lemoine (she/her) is a PhD candidate in the Geography Department at Florida State University and a Florida Sea Grant Aquaculture and Communications Graduate Student Fellow. She is interested in the social and ecological dynamics of seafood systems, and her dissertation focuses on the social dimensions of marine aquaculture. Prior to pursuing her PhD, Hayley earned a Master of Environmental Management degree from Yale University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology from Vassar College. In 2021, Hayley served as a Florida Sea Grant HARVEST intern where she worked on Ocean Era’s Velella Epsilon project.

Kaitlyn Theberge (she/her) is the Seafood Resources Knauss Fellow at the National Sea Grant Office. Her fellowship work involves conducting a needs assessment of aquaculture and related programs at Minority Serving Institutions around the country.  Her broader interests include bridging science, policy, industry, and the public to find solutions in sustainable seafood and other key ocean issues. Kaitlyn earned a Master of Science degree in Fish & Wildlife Conservation from Virginia Tech and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Science and French from Bowdoin College.